Love and Detachment (Jesus vs. Plato series)

Today as I was taking my customary Monday fast and walk around Burke Lake, I stopped and opened up a book of writings by Maximus the Confessor, a Christian monk who lived from 580-662 AD. I opened up to an essay called the “Four Hundred Chapters on Love” (which is four hundred paragraphs according to today’s terminology but anyway). Here’s how the essay opens:

Love is a good disposition of the soul by which one prefers no being to the knowledge of God. It is impossible to reach the habit of this love if one has any attachment to earthly things.

Fourteen centuries of thought separate us from the presumptions which guided Maximus to make this observation about love. How can Maximus say that love is about not being attached to anything? Isn’t the opposite true? Isn’t being detached the same as being apathetic, cynical, and thus incapable of love. In fact, the Latin word that Maximus uses for detachment is apathia. So what’s going on?

Maximus’ statement captures the synthesis of Christianity and Platonism that was a much more open part of Christian thought for the first two-thirds of its history than it is today. No two historical figures have had a greater influence on the course of European thought than Jesus and Plato. There’s been a lot of talk in Christian academic circles in the past few decades about the degree to which Platonism influenced/corrupted Christianity and whether or not this was a bad thing. It’s trendy right now to write books that point out how beliefs we’ve had that we always thought were Christian are really Platonist instead and they need to be rooted out for us to return to truly “Biblical” Christianity. I don’t feel that the influence of Platonism on Christianity was an entirely bad thing, but it’s complicated so I figured I would devote a blog series to looking at where Platonism fits with Christianity and where it doesn’t.

Let me first give a quick and dirty explanation of Plato’s thought, so as not to presume that everyone has had exposure. Basically, Plato saw the world as having two levels to it — the level of reality and the level of appearances (my terms, not Plato’s). What we see and touch and hear and taste is on the level of appearances; the level of reality refers to the principles and processes underneath the surface that make the world function. The goal of the Platonist thinker is to get past the level of appearances and be able to encounter reality itself. Here’s the challenge. You stay in the shallow world of appearances as long as you’re a slave to cheap thrills and melodramatic mood swings. It takes a lot of discipline and self-control to get to where you can sit still long enough to think clearly, which is what you have to do be able to do to access the level of reality and not just appearances.

Plato explained this by depicting the human soul with three different parts: the appetites, the passions, and reason. Most people get yanked around by their appetites and their passions so much that they are constantly behaving irrationally. As human beings, our reason is often like a 80 pound old woman walking a pack of eight Dobermans around the neighborhood. The challenge is to get to the point where my soul’s reason subdues my appetites and passions, as it does in the well-ordered soul. Early Christians saw similarity between Plato’s battle of reason, the appetites, and the passions and the battle St. Paul described in Romans 7 and other places between the (good) spirit and (bad) flesh of a Christian. Thus early Christians saw in Platonic thought a confirmation of the way of life called for by Paul and Jesus. They often cited Plato in their arguments defending Christianity to the Roman rulers who had respect for Plato but were throwing Christians to the lions.

In any case, the way that many Christian monks sought to connect with God more deeply was to subdue their passions and appetites by living in harsh conditions, eating very simple, bland foods, and doing whatever else it took to keep their biological urges from ruling over them. This is why love and detachment have the relationship that they do for Maximus. As long as your life is driven by very shallow, selfish needs, you’re not going to develop the emotional maturity to truly love another person. You might use another person for sex or money or social prestige, but you won’t be able to love that person without rising above and becoming detached from your pettier, more animalistic side.

Now here’s the problem that develops with this view. Over time, Plato’s understanding that rational thought can only occur in the absence of passion was developed into what might be called the modern scientific mindset. Scientists are trained to observe the world and do experiments completely without passion or emotional attachment in order to come up with results that are completely unbiased. There is a place in which this dispassion, or objectivity, is called for. When a scientist is trying to find the cure for cancer, the utmost integrity and dispassionate honesty is called for. Otherwise your excitement or desperation about a possible discovery might lead you to fudge your results so that many people would get hurt as the result of a false discovery.

Science certainly needs dispassionate observation to be science. But the place where emotional detachment becomes deadly is when scientists have been so purged of human sympathy that they do things which harm individual people ostensibly for the good of the human race or simply for the sake of scientific discovery. This is what happened for example in the Tuskegee Institute’s syphilis study from 1932-1972 when poor rural blacks were deliberately not treated for syphilis (even though an effective cure existed) in order to study the effects that the disease would have on them long-term (how long it would take them to go crazy, die, etc). The same thing is true for the Nazi scientists who performed abominable experiments on Jewish guinea pigs during the Holocaust.

The Jewish philosopher Hannah Arendt wrote several books about what the Holocaust revealed about the nature of evil. What she discovered is that it wasn’t so much the raving lunatic passions of people like Hitler and his propagandist Goebbels that caused so much evil to happen. It was the quiet rationalism of the thousands of Nazi bureaucrats like Adolf Eichmann, who was in charge of organizing the logistics of the extermination of the Jews, figuring out how many Jewish bodies could be packed into boxcars, how much poisonous gas to deliver to each of the concentration camps each month, how hot the crematory ovens needed to get, etc. Eichmann was completely “detached to earthly things” in the execution of his job, and that was precisely the problem.

In the global capitalism of our world today, there are many people who faithfully devote themselves to the pie charts of profit completely detached from the material impact that their decision-making will have on others. It is not that the financial industry executives want to wreck other peoples’ lives; they are given specific goals and a set of numbers to work with and they set to work within the parameters they have been assigned. It is much easier to make economic policies that devastate other peoples’ lives when the decision-makers operate in complete abstraction from the concrete consequences of their decisions. In other words, the complex structures of our world have caused detachment to mean the opposite of love. Love means being personally invested and personal investment requires passion.

It’s clear that what Maximus meant by detachment and what we mean by detachment are very different. The same goes for passion. But I think there is a better way of understanding in today’s terms what we need to be detached from in order to experience God’s love. Let me share another sentence from Maximus to illuminate a way of redeploying his Christian/Platonist thought:

The one who has genuinely renounced worldly matters and serves his neighbor without pretense through love soon frees himself of all passion and is rendered a sharer of divine love and knowledge. [27]

The goal that I see Maximus articulating in this sentence is to become a perfect vessel of God’s love, to love our neighbors not for some agenda of social self-advancement or in order to earn some kind of pat-on-the-back from God but simply in order to discover a greater share of “divine love and knowledge.” Where Maximus says that the person who is a vessel of God’s love “frees himself of all passion,” I would replace the word passion with self-interest. When we serve our neighbor without pretense, we will inevitably feel warm and fuzzy inside, and it would be ridiculous to be ashamed of that. But the thing God liberates us from is the need to say Hey look at me!

The best articulation of the kind of detachment we are to seek as Christians is Philippians 2:5-8 —

In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus: who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death— even death on a cross!

We experience love fully when we can empty ourselves like Christ did. Now self-emptying has a very specific meaning. It does not mean that we pretend not to have needs and engage in gratuitous martyrdom. To be self-emptied in our love is to renounce any agenda of control as the purpose of our love. Christ did not use His divinity “to his own advantage.” That is the way in which He was selfless. Love can never be the means by which I establish my power over other people, or it’s not love. Doing things for other people in order to create indebtedness is codependency, not love. I can only love in the way God loves and as part of God’s process of loving if I’m willing to lose my self within that love.

So in other words, I would disagree with Maximus that true Godly love requires our detachment from earthly things, per se. As the apostle Paul writes, “Eat anything sold in the meat market without raising questions of conscience… Whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God” (1 Cor 10:25, 31). I don’t think we are called as Christians to despise material pleasures for the sake of focusing exclusively on matters of the mind (as Platonism would say). I don’t think that someone who lives in a library basement cubicle is necessarily going to enjoy a greater intimacy with God than a youth pastor who takes her kids out to get ice cream every week. The detachment Christians need to cultivate is not the avoidance of sunsets and beach vacations and brownie Sundaes, but a renunciation of control, possession, and entitlement, so that sunsets, beaches, and Sundaes can be enjoyed for the sake of the love they express from their Creator rather than the sake of our consumption.

It can be part of my worship of God to enjoy the delights of my five senses as long as I can do so without needing to say the word mine. If I can recognize that the world belongs to God and every object of material beauty within it is a gift from God, then I will be able to receive God’s love and share it with others. I need not spend my life in a sensory deprivation chamber or have every ounce of human passion sucked out of me in order to be a faithful Christian. Thus ends round one of Jesus vs. Plato.


2 thoughts on “Love and Detachment (Jesus vs. Plato series)

  1. A bit late in the day I admit but for some reason I have been looking at concept of non attachment. One article written by an Orthodox priest married with a family. Surely he would be attached to his wife and family. I liked a lot of what you say but still see a problem in loving our neighbor in order to discover a greater sense of divine love and knowledge and for the glory of God. Doesn’t that make the person the means to an end? What about the importance of my neighbor, my pets, the environment in themselves. Too often the concept of non attachment seems like living in a schizoid way in order not to make life more painful if things go wrong. Better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all. By avoiding the pain of this it seems one avoids life.

    • Since I wrote this a while ago, I had to look it over a little bit. I think you’re describing the Platonic version of the story that’s problematic. Maximus may have been overly Platonic. The way I tried to resolve the question is to equate detachment with self-emptying, i.e. enjoying other people and things not as MY possession but as GOD’S creation. “The detachment Christians need to cultivate is not the avoidance of sunsets and beach vacations and brownie Sundaes, but a renunciation of control, possession, and entitlement.” The choice is not between enjoying them in God or in themselves. The choice is between enjoying them as commodities I can exploit or as God’s creation which has irreducibly intrinsic value that cannot be bought or sold. To enjoy neighbors, pets, environment as God’s creation IS to enjoy them in themselves.

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